A Mickey Mouse cup, a fake trophy, a plastic prize, not worth winning… The list of disparaging descriptions associated with the League Cup are endless.
It’s fair to say that it’s not a priority for some clubs, especially those who are in the Champions League. For them, fielding weakened sides seems to be the norm when the League Cup begins.
Liverpool are obviously not in the Champions League nor the Europa League this season. So English football’s third prize becomes even more of a priority for them. Then again, it’s nearly always been high on their list of priorities once they eventually realised the benefits it could bring.
Their first triumph in the competition arrived in 1981, courtesy of a replay win over West Ham United at Villa Park.
Since then they’ve gone on to claim the trophy a further seven times, creating a tally of triumphs that surpasses everybody else’s efforts.
Initially though, when it began in 1961 – along with a lot of other clubs – the Anfielders looked at it in a scornful manner. Bill Shankly felt it was a distraction that yielded very few benefits; there wasn’t even a Wembley final with it being decided over two legs in those early years.
During the Scot’s first full season in charge, 1960/61, Liverpool exited to Southampton at the third round hurdle and then didn’t participate again until 1967. After that the furthest they progressed was the fifth round, when they lost to Tottenham in 1972 and Wolves twelve months later.
Bob Paisley’s regime saw things improve slowly; a 1978 final defeat to Nottingham Forest after a replay before the same opposition ended their run in the last four two years later.
Finally, the breakthrough happened with that aforementioned victory over the Hammers.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” captain Phil Thompson declared.
“The League Cup has been going on for a good few years without Liverpool’s name on it, and now we’ve put that right in the best possible way.”
Their grip on the trophy would only tighten over the next three seasons, with victories over Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton – after a replay – sealing their dominance in each showpiece fixture.
By then the merits of the competition were there for all to see. Winning it guaranteed a European place long before the season ended, thus slightly taking the pressure off in that sense for the remainder of the campaign.
There was also the fact that winning was a habit and one that players quickly became addicted to. And for those who were new to the Liverpool squad, it provided them with invaluable experience of a big day out at Wembley.
All of those factors mean it is has remained highly ranked by the majority of managers who have followed Paisley and Joe Fagan, the man in charge in 1984, in to the manager’s office at Anfield since then.
Roy Evans used it to build confidence amongst the squad and thought the 1995 Steve McManaman-inspired 2-1 success over Bolton Wanderers was the start of something big only for his team to come narrowly close to adding other honours before ultimately faltering.
His successor, Gerard Houllier, set about with a similar approach; winning the League Cup thanks to a penalty shootout victory over Birmingham City in 2001.
Goalscorer, and Man of the Match on that day at the Millennium Stadium, Robbie Fowler later pointed out (via Liverpool’s official website):
“It’s a stepping stone and gives us a platform. At Liverpool we should be winning trophies so hopefully this can be the start and a platform to go on and win a few more trophies.”
It was, as they secured the FA Cup and UEFA Cup just a few months later.
2012’s success over Cardiff City via the same means as the Birmingham triumph eleven years earlier was another example of the Reds prioritising the competition far more than some of their fellow Premier League sides.
Kenny Dalglish, the winning manager, was quick to point out (via the BBC):
“Right at the beginning, when we went to Exeter City in the second round, we said we wanted to the treat the competition with respect because, if we are doing that, we are treating the club with respect as well.”
Of course, Jurgen Klopp reached the final last season where only a fine display in the shootout from Willy Caballero denied his men the silverware and ensured it went to Manchester City. Now he’ll be determined that the competition aids his side this term again.
First of all they’ll want to use the Burton Albion fixture to help them quickly forget about losing so poorly at Burnley last weekend.
It’s about more than that though; the German will know sustained progress in the League Cup could play a part in his squad going on to to achieve bigger ambitions. That’s why Tuesday night’s fixture at the Pirelli Stadium matters.
Johnny Hynes, Pundit Arena